Press play to listen to this article
Move over, RT. There is a new Russian disinformation actor in town.
After the European Union banned Kremlin-backed media and social media giants downgraded their posts for peddling lies about the war in Ukraine, Moscow turned to its cadre of diplomats, door-to-door government and ministers – many of whom have extensive social media followings – to promote disinformation about the conflict in Eastern Europe, according to four EU and US officials.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic newsletter, because they were not authorized to speak publicly about how Western governments follow the Kremlin’s narratives on the war.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the country’s officials left outright disinformation tactics to Kremlin-owned outlets like RT and Sputnik, whose multilingual operations helped spread false narratives to the public of Ukraine. Latin America to Africa. Instead, Russian government officials promoted a positive vision of the country, framed in diplomatic language within the rules of the existing international political order.
However, since the end of February, the gloves have come off.
The Russian Embassy in Spain posted a video taken from now-sanctioned RT which showed alleged Ukrainian attacks on civilians in the country’s breakaway republics. The country’s missions in Paris and Geneva promoted lies on Russian executions of civilians in the town of Bucha. Moscow’s official Facebook account for its foreign ministry has repeatedly shared links to a Russian-language Telegram channel and associated website that allegedly debunked Ukrainian lies about the ongoing conflict.
Since Russia invaded its western neighbor on February 24, combined Twitter posts from Russian diplomatic accounts have increased by 26%, compared to the same period before the war. But the amount of engagement – in terms of likes and shares – of this same material has jumped more than 200% since the war began, as these accounts become increasingly belligerent in the way they push misinformation. , according to data from the German Marshall Fund of the American Alliance for Securing Democracy.
“As long as Russian state media continues to be banned, downgraded, or otherwise impacted, they will want to fill that messaging vacuum,” said Bret Schafer, head of the manipulation team. information from the Alliance for Securing Democracy that follows the state – supported disinformation. “The best way to do that, to control the narrative, is through their diplomatic accounts.”
Russia’s “wolf warriors”
In times of war, it is not surprising that Russian officials and diplomats side with the Kremlin.
But the level of misinformation, including the promotion of Russian-owned state media and potentially doctored images, now shared by official Moscow accounts represents a paradigm shift in how Russia pushes its false narratives, according to two European and American officials.
In many ways, Moscow is now borrowing heavily from Beijing’s own foreign policy playbook, which has relied on the so-called Western-oriented social media accounts of Chinese diplomats’ wolf warriors to spread its messages in the whole world. These officials are quick to jump on any perceived affront to China, and often spread false messages about the country’s actions to the world.
The change has been rapid and dramatic, coinciding with EU sanctions on RT and Sputnik, as well as decisions by social media companies to limit how these state-backed outlets can share their content online. . With the end of the war in Ukraine unclear — and Russia’s isolation on the world stage likely to remain — Western officials said this new use of diplomatic accounts to aggressively push disinformation is likely to become the new norm.
Shortly after conspiracy theories about a potential US bioweapons lab in Ukraine began surfacing online, the Russian Embassy in the UK hopped on this bandwagon, including the sharing of alleged satellite images of these facilities scattered across the country. Other Embassies viral videos posted of alleged war crimes against Russian-speaking civilians, while the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account posted documents and photos – along with the hashtag #DonbassTragedy – which also accuse kyiv of committing genocide between 2014 and 2022 .
Western governments are starting to fight back. On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had summoned the Russian ambassador for the “indecent and provocative” of the embassy’s repeated sharing via social media of lies about Bucha’s executions, which Ukraine says were carried out by Russian forces.
Twitter also said it would not favor Accounts of Russian state officials on its platform, in part because of how these diplomats and politicians used the social media network to spread misinformation. Facebook also said it was considering taking further action against Kremlin-linked pages that spread lies about the war in Ukraine.
“We are actively considering what additional steps we should take, especially in the context of misinformation and hoaxes coming from Russian government pages,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Meta, told reporters on Wednesday. parent company of Facebook.
Fake Accounts and Warfakes
Russia is drawing on its bag of tricks to promote its new disinformation strategy.
A significant proportion of Twitter users interacting with this content, for example, have been created since February and repeatedly share diplomats’ posts – a sign that these users are either fake or were created as part of a broader influence operation, according to an internal EU report on Russian disinformation obtained by POLITICO.
A newly created account has posted nearly 100 times since the war began, using Kremlin-related hashtags like #See4Yourself, while another user has shared 41 of the most engaged posts written by Russian officials, including almost all were lies about Ukraine. .
“The [social media] The reach is not the same as Russian state media, but they try to recreate what RT and Sputnik did,” said an EU official involved in tracking Russian disinformation. “It’s a coordinated effort that goes beyond social media and involves specific websites. “
At the heart of this larger online playbook is a Telegram channel called Warfakes and an affiliate website. Since the start of the conflict, this social media channel has amassed more than 725,000 members and repeatedly shares alleged fact-checks aimed at debunking Ukrainian narratives, using language similar to Western-style fact-checking points. The affiliate website, hosted in Russia and registered on March 1, also shares pro-Russian misinformation and lies in multiple languages.
According to research of academics from the University of Amsterdam. Researchers have found that among those who have shared Warfakes content are Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, 23 of the country’s embassies, from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan, and at least 10 Russian “houses of culture”, mainly in Europe.
“There was this intentional attempt to constantly repost Warfakes [content]. It seems like state sponsorship to me,” said Marc Tuters, a University of Amsterdam professor who helped oversee the research. “It seems more than a coincidence that all of these accounts are promoting of this one thing.”
Discover the Digital Bridge newsletter
Russia’s tactics for spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine are part of a larger transatlantic playbook that includes far-right extremists and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s Chief Technical Correspondent, and if you liked this story, check out Digital Bridge, my weekly EU-US digital policy newsletter.